Direct Writing and Main Verbs

A sentence can have many verbs, but only one verb will be the main verb. The main verb begins the predicate of the sentence, which is the second part of the main message in a sentence. This verb answers the “did what” part of the readers’ question: “Who did what do whom?”

A sentence has two types of main verbs: The grammatical main verb and the meaningful action.

Grammatical Main Verb: The grammatical main verb is the word in the position of the main verb. Because it has the grammatical role of main verb, it is called the grammatical main verb. It begins the predicate of the sentence and links with the grammatical subject. When you ask the question “What are the subject and main verb?” you identify the grammatical main verb, as seen in the following example.

Example: “Fourteen members of Congress changed party affiliation during the campaign.”
What is the subject? Fourteen members of Congress
What is the verb linked to the subject? changed
What is the grammatical main verb? changed

Meaningful Action: The concept of the meaningful action is more complex. To find the meaningful action, the writer asks, “What is the main action being described in the sentence?” The answer will be the meaningful action, as seen in the next example.

Example: “Veterinarians have discovered a new form of feline leukemia.”
Main action described by the sentence: discovering
Meaningful action: discovering

Direct writing uses the meaningful action as the grammatical main verb. After answering, “What are the subject and main verb?” the writer needs to ask, “Is the main verb also the main action being described?” If the answer is Yes, then the main verb and meaningful action are the same. If the answer is No, then the sentence needs to be revised.

Grammatical Main Verb vs. Meaningful Action: The subject and the main verb communicate the primary message of the sentence. If you use the wrong verb, you divert the reader’s attention from the message you intend. On the other hand, if you use the meaningful action as the main verb, you accurately communicate your message and direct the reader’s attention to the point you wish to make.

The following example demonstrates how the grammatical main verb and meaningful action may be different.

Example: “Free energy sources are what politicians describe as science fiction.”
Grammatical main verb: are (following the grammatical subject free energy sources)
Main action described by the sentence: describing
Meaningful action: describing

Here, the main verb (are) differs from the meaningful action (describing). To revise this sentence, we use the meaningful action as the grammatical main verb, leading to the following revision:

“Politicians describe free energy sources as science fiction.”

When writers use the meaningful action as the grammatical main verb, they will also use the meaningful subject as the grammatical subject. The revised sentence describes politicians and their actions, and it uses politicians as the grammatical subject.

As discussed previously in “Choosing the Correct Meaningful Subject,” a writer can choose different subjects to change the focus of the sentence. If we want this sentence to be about free energy sources, we can instead write

“Free energy sources are science fiction, politicians claim”


“Free energy sources, politicians say, are science fiction.”

These two options, with free energy sources as the subject, use are as the main verb. This approach is risky because are is a state-of-being verb, not an action verb, which will be discussed later.  For now, examine your sentences and identify the main actions they describe. Then make sure to use those actions as the main verb. 

[This writing instruction is from the chapter “Direct Writing” in the forthcoming writing guide Bowman’s Concise Guide to Technical Writing. The guide will be available mid-February 2011 at Visit the main company website ( for more news and information about this guide.]


1 Comment

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One response to “Direct Writing and Main Verbs

  1. mjl

    Smashing blog – thank you for taking the trouble.

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